Social relationships were important components of the French absolute monarchy. Historians agree that to achieve supreme control and national unity, Kings relied heavily on military strength. There is little question that absolutist France came to posses the largest standing army Europe had ever seen. Armies made France a powerful state, and the King a powerful ruler. However kings also controlled through non military means, establishing bureaucratic and legal systems and developing an absolutist culture with the King at the centre. These manifestations of absolutism, at varying degrees of significance, helped shape social relationships, and in turn, enforced the absolutist regime. Contrastingly, other historians maintain that the absolute system worked within pre-existing social codes, which were more influential in shaping social relationships. Historians herald the significance of these different factors because they take a variety of historiographical approaches.
Absolutism redefined the socio-political structures and language of court society. Court cabals and courtesies became important factors that influenced social relationships. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie uses the court memoirs of Duc de Saint Simone, to explain the system of court cabals. Ladurie explains how the King placed himself at the top of the court hierarchy, and held a number of favourites.1 Lower courtiers would group around these powerful individuals, such as King Louis XIV’s wife Madame de Maintenon, to gain power, wealth, status and other privileges through association.2 Saint Simon’s court memoirs are a more traditional historiographical source, detailing friendships, marriages and patronage relationships that formed and separated court cabals.3 However Laudrie himself admits the limitations of the source, stating that it has a tendency to be subjective with some bias, and inaccurate facts.4 But as Ladurie states, his purpose was not statistical detail, but to present a ‘model’ for the network of social relationships in court society, and to reveal that they placed the king in an enormous position of influence to determine courtier’s social standing.5 Orest Ranum consults similar sources and concludes that courtesies were a new political language that redefined the way courtiers socialised and communicated, while also being a political tool for negotiating the cabal system. Ranum analyses Theodore Godefroy’s Grand Ceremonial de France from 1619, one of the many courtesy manuals written for courtiers.6 Absolutist monarchies did not invent courtesies, but Ranum argues that these manuals justified and systematized these social codes.7 Courtesy rules dictated the nature of social affiliations and interactions, becoming a vital political language in court society, as a means of showing or denying respect or favour to individuals and cabals. For example “hat doffing… and lowered eyes” became the language of respect that carried on along the hierarchy, with the King at the top.8 Ranum, citing historian William Farr Church, claims discourtesies shown to Kings were “insults to God himself, ” enforcing enormous regal authority.9 Moreover, under Louis XIV, all topics except frivolous small talk, were branded ‘discourteous,’ in an attempt to repress uprisings.10 Both historians analyse similar sources and share the conclusion that absolutism created a new social order, designed to enforce the King’s power.
Sarah Hanley however, argues bureaucratic models, established by the absolutist state, were important factors shaping family and gender relationships. Hanley investigates the ‘Family State Compact,’ revealing that it enforced distinct gender roles and enshrined the patriarchal family model in legislation. This model was in turn used to explain and justify absolutism.11 Hanley approaches her study with an “ethnographic” perspective.12 She states that conventional historiography has always been a uniform process of selecting documents to confirm a point,...
Bibliography: Burke, Peter. History Today. New Haven. Yale University Press, 1992. pp. 24-30.
Farr, James R., “The Death of a Judge: Performance, Honor and Legitimacy in Seventeenth-Century France”, Journal of Modern History 75, no. 1 (2003): pp. 1-22.
Hanley, Sarah. “Endangering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France.” French Historical Studies 16, no. 1 (1989): pp. 1-27.
Koslofsky, Craig. “Princes of Darkness: The Night at Court, 1650-1750”, Journal of Modern History 79, no. 2 (2007): pp. 235-73.
Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, The Mind and Method of the Historian, trans. Sian and Ben Reynolds, Chicago, University of Chicago Press; Harvester Press, 1981. pp. 149-73.
Mukerji, Chandra. “The Political Mobilization of Nature in Seventeenth-Century French Formal Gardens”, Theory and Society 23, no. 5 (1994): pp. 651-77.
Ranum, Orest. “Courtesy, Absolutism, and the Rise of the French State, 1630-1660,” Journal of Modern History 52, no. 3 (1980): pp. 426-51.
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